Academic journal article Hecate

The Hatpin -- a Weapon: Women and the 1912 Brisbane General Strike

Academic journal article Hecate

The Hatpin -- a Weapon: Women and the 1912 Brisbane General Strike

Article excerpt

We now realise the purpose for which the police force exists. It exists to intimidate us, to break our unions and strikes and help employers to bind and rivet us to the chains of ignominy which they have been carefully forging.(1)

In 1912 the mere action by tramwaymen of attaching a union badge to their watch chains led to a complete shut down of industry in Brisbane, and to one of the most extreme uses of force in Brisbane's city streets. This struggle led to a massive upsurge of support on the part of women; it also led to Emma Miller becoming part of the folklore of Queensland for her fiery and defiant defence of trade unionism.

The Brisbane tramways at this time were not under municipal control, but were run by a private British company with as manager, J. S. Badger, an American; a man with a deep seated hatred of unionism, unpopularly nicknamed "Boss" Badger or "Bully" Badger.

Instead of one Brisbane City Council as now, Brisbane was divided into separate local councils until the early 1920s. As far back as 1893, during a strike which was supported by Emma Miller and other women, unions had unsuccessfully called on the Combined Brisbane Councils to take over the tramway company. In 1910 a special meeting of the local councils rejected Badger's proposal for a 25-year extension of the tramway company's franchise.

Again, as in the period before the shearer's strike, fear of the seemingly revolutionary goals of growing trade unionism was widespread among the establishment. It brought reaction from employers and the liberal government under Premier Denham. Added to the industrial strength of the unions with a more secure base than in the 1890s was their alliance with the Labor Party. Attempts to thwart further growth of the workers' movement were imminent.

The tramway company had been making high profits, almost doubling them in a year; fares, however, were the highest in Australia, double those in other states, and services inadequate. Drivers had no weather shield to protect them from the elements and, according to Truth, the old fashioned hand brakes made the trams dangerous, with deaths and accidents to pedestrians reported as regular happenings.(2) Working women had their battle with the company and, it seems, also with the male travellers. A special working man's tram ran at peak hours from Paddington at discount fares, so the working women in the district approached the company for a similar special tram for working women. Badger compromised by calling the original tram "a working people's tram". However when the women attempted to board it, they found it impossible as the men, considering it their tram, selfishly refused to make room.

Wearing o' the badge

When in 1904 the tramwaymen attempted to form a union, Badger dismissed the leaders, later reinstating them, on the proviso that they abandon all ideas of unionising. Other attempts also failed and Badger, copying American methods, formed his own union which was no more than a recreation club. As real wages had been declining, but food prices were high and rents on the increase, there were urgent economic reasons for forming a union. While Badger was overseas, a southern organiser secretly obtained the 50 signatures required to register a union branch of the Australian Tramway Employees Association. This was lodged with the Federal Arbitration Court, along with similar ones from Adelaide and Melbourne. When this registration was accepted, Badger refused to recognise the union, denying its members use of the company's recreation rooms. The association put forward a log of claims for increased wages and conditions, and the right to wear the union badge. The latter became an issue when the company issued an edict denying the men's right to wear it.

The Australian Labour Federation (ALF) recognised that the provocative stance of the tramway company would eventually affect all unions and was an "attempt to aim a blow at the whole structure of unionism in Australia",(3) and decided to become involved. …

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